Thursday, 23 April 2020

Fashion Revolution Week 2020: fashion isn't rubbish!

If you're an anxious person like me, I’m sure your brain will be continually reminding you that we are in the middle of not one, but two, global crises. The COVID-19 pandemic, and irreversible climate change. While this global health crisis has had plenty of negative effects on our lives, we can’t simply go back to the way things were before once it’s medically safe to do so. Our current system is destroying the planet and leaving hundreds of millions of people in poverty. The fast fashion industry has shown its true colours during this pandemic, putting profit above the wellbeing and lives of its workers. We can’t go on with business as usual. 

The fast fashion industry is inherently unsustainable - garment workers spend punishingly long hours making huge numbers of clothes that might never even be worn - the whims of brands and the obsession with new micro-trends appearing every couple of weeks mean some clothes will probably go directly from a shop floor or a fulfilment warehouse into the incinerator without even being tried on by a customer. Marketing that pushes the idea of always having something new as normal means that a lot of clothes will only be worn a few times before being discarded. Charity shops often can’t sell hastily made clothes that would only cost a few pounds when bought brand new, so these clothes have to be downcycled or disposed of.

The problem starts with the patterns that most of our clothes are cut from. As today’s first piece of wearable art, 15% Fabric Waste shows, traditional pattern pieces don’t tessellate perfectly together, and so cutting out the garment generates waste. The fabric pieces that adorn this plain shirt are from a jacket I made for myself, using the fabric as carefully as I could, but using a pattern that I hadn’t designed to minimise fabric waste. In factories making clothes for multinational brands, thousands of garments will be cut out at once, creating huge amounts of fabric waste. Making this piece made me realise that I need to rethink my approach to pattern cutting to make it less wasteful. Developing zero-waste patterns that look interesting and flattering is a challenge that fashion brands are going to have to take up too if they want to become more sustainable in the long run. 

Brands from H&M to Burberry have been found to be incinerating or destroying unsold stock, and unfortunately it’s fairly safe to assume that unless a big brand has made a point of saying they don’t do this, they probably have at some point. The wastefulness of this action boils my blood - we are polluting water, destroying the environment, condemning people to miserable working conditions only to throw away the final product without ever using it? Brands have to stop producing so much. We don’t need to buy from a shop that is filled to the rafters with clothing. We need to accept that we can’t all expect to be able to buy the same t-shirt. To be a creative, dynamic and sustainable industry, fashion needs more variation and less volume.

We also have to remember that we aren’t the end point in the garment supply chain. When we buy clothing, we need to think about what will happen to it in the long run. My clothes get downgraded through my wardrobe long before I think about getting rid of them: smart -> casual -> at home -> cleaning/gardening -> rags for dusting -> textile recycling! Clothing donations to charity shops have to be of good enough quality that you yourself would be happy to spend money on them. If we all just throw our unwanted clothes in the bin, we end up with the problem illustrated in my second art piece - 80% Fabric Waste. This piece is made up of scraps left over from upcycling and refashioning projects - the trimmings that are too small or awkwardly shaped to be used for a new project and would otherwise end up in textile recycling, or the bin.

We have been slow to develop textile recycling technology - at the moment it’s hard to separate mixed fibres, and recycled fibres end up shorter and more difficult to weave into fabric so have to be mixed with “virgin” fibres. But we can’t just continue to throw things away - there is no “away”. That’s why campaigns like Fashion Revolution have been encouraging a slower, more thoughtful approach to fashion; buying clothes you really love and keeping them for longer, washing them less often and at lower temperatures to prevent fabric degradation and mending them to give them another lease of life. We have an individual responsibility to care for our own clothes, but the fashion industry also has a responsibility to manufacture and sell clothing in a less wasteful way, and to make clothes that are long-lasting and recyclable.

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